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Ultimately, I think the best thing to do is realize that it can be forwarded, regardless of what technology you use.

As it appears that there isn't a technical way to stop someone from forwarding a private email correspondence to someone else, is there some statement inside the email that contains some effective legalese to forbid it? I was even wondering about placing the text in a website and sending an email via a link then removing the document from the web shortly after it's read.

In this excerpt from Answercast #55, I look at the difficulties involved in keeping emails from being forwarded.

Forwarding emails

So there's a couple of things going on here. First, I think it's very important to realize that if someone can see it on their computer screen, they can copy it, they can send it, they can forward it, they can do whatever it is you apparently don't want them to do with it. There is literally no technical way to prevent that. If I can see it, I can forward it.

There's plenty of different ways... it boils down to how difficult do you want to make it for them? But even the most difficult approach, in all honesty, isn't really all that hard.

If someone is intent on forwarding or copying a piece of email that you sent them, that they can see on their screen, they can. Period.

Protecting content

Now, the document on the web, in that case, it sounds kind of interesting. You know: you put the document up there; they read the document; then eventually, you take the document away so they no longer can see that document.

The problem is what if during the time they were able to view it, they copied it? They now have a local copy of that document that is completely independent of whatever it is you took away from the web. They still have it; they still see it and they can still forward it.

Or, the other side of that coin is, while you had it up on the web, what if they forwarded then? What if they copied then? What if they did whatever it is you don't want them to do with it while the document was visible to them?

Copy protection is ineffective

So ultimately, I need to reinforce that:

  • If you can see it, you can copy it.

  • If you can copy it, you can send it.

There really is no effective way to stop that.

Legal "Don't copy" statements

Now, legalese? First of all, I'm no lawyer. This is not legal advice... However, why?

The point is that if someone is intent on forwarding information from you to someone else (if they're intent on that), the fact that you ask them not to or threaten them with legal action if they do, that's not going to stop everybody.

Technically, obviously they can... they can forward it all they want. They may or may not get into trouble. You may or may not have to get a lawyer to prosecute them. Do you want to do that? Are you sure you're going to do that?

"Legalese" in my opinion really doesn't add any value to this problem. And I think it really gives people a very false sense of security. The fact that you've added a few words at the end of your email that says, "Don't forward this," is almost an invitation for many people to forward it. They're going to do it whether you ask them to or not.

  • If they're honest people, they're not going to do it, whatever you say.

  • If they're dishonest people, if they're people that are intent on forwarding this email, they're going to do it regardless of what you say.

So ultimately, I think the best thing to do is simply realize that it can be forwarded. It will be forwarded regardless of what technology you use and regardless of what words you use.

Non-technical meetings

This, by the way, is one of the reasons that many lawyers will insist on a telephone or a face-to-face conversation rather than an email's trail.

An email trail can in fact be recovered, can in fact be used in legal proceedings. Whereas face-to-face meetings are apparently less likely to be recorded, of course, (there's less likely to be a record of what was said) and there is less likely to be a way to actually go back and absolutely say "this" and "that" is what happened.

So my recommendation is: if you don't want it forwarded, don't send it in an email.

Use some other technique that allows you to control the message. Typically, that means not using technology if the person that you're talking to really can't be trusted.

Article C5844 - September 24, 2012 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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1 Comment
Ken B
September 25, 2012 6:40 AM

And yet, it's usually the lawyers whose emails have that huge "this is private... forwarding is forbidden..." legalese notice at the bottom, on every e-mail regardless of its nature.

Which I find both inredibly frustrating, and ironic.

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